This past week has seen Al-Qaeda rise after a period of weakening and transition. After losing a number of its leadership, most notably Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, it was thought that the organization would be further crippled until it could no longer operate effectively. However its recent actions in Iraq, Somalia, and possibly even Syria demonstrate that Al-Qaeda is transitioning itself to regain a foothold in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran has been penalized by the U.S. Treasury for its support of Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, a district court in 2011 found Iran guilty of being linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by Al-Qaeda. Although it has long been known that Iran is the largest state-backer of terrorism, this link to Al-Qaeda is especially important to understand the Iranian regime’s attempt to gain dominance in the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda has been busy lately with two major developments: a string of attacks in Iraq and a merger with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The attacks in Iraq were coordinated and deadly, killing around 50 and injuring more than 200, and targeted Shia neighborhoods and police stations throughout the country. Now that the Iraqi government is providing its own security, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is trying to destabilize the country through sectarian violence, striking at a critical moment when the government is fractured. To further strengthen its position, Al-Qaeda merged with the Somali anti-government movement Al-Shabaab. Although the two organizations have worked closely for a long time, the move isn’t going to significantly change their working relationship. Language from Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, indicates that the merger is mostly for recruiting and propaganda purposes:
“[The] jihadi movement is growing…despite the fiercest Crusader campaign in history launched by the West against Muslims.”
It has also been rumored that Al-Qaeda may be responsible for bombings in Syria. There is some disagreement from officials whether it is AQI or just Sunni extremists, but it seems likely that AQI would try to exploit the situation to recruit fighters and gain power in the region. These recent developments show a trend in Al-Qaeda’s strategy from focusing on attacking the ‘Zionists and Crusaders’ to working on Muslim countries where some real damage can be done. This does not mean that they won’t attempt terror plots against the West or stop its anti-West rhetoric, but it does show that its capacity to function on its own has diminished significantly from a decade ago.
Since the 1990’s, Iran has been supporting terrorist groups in opposition to the U.S., most notably Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. Last November, a Washington, D.C. district court listed as evidence against Iran the training of Al-Qaeda operatives:
“…in a short time, al Qaeda acquired the capabilities to carry out the 1998 Embassy bombings…by detonation of very large and sophisticated bombs…it would not have been possible for al Qaeda to a reasonable degree of certainty to have executed this type of a bombing attack, which it had never previously executed, without this type of training it received from Iran and Hezbollah.”
More recently, it was discovered that Iran was supporting insurgent groups in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan against Western troops through its Quds Force (the Iranian covert operations organization) with money, training and advanced weaponry “such as improvised rocket assisted mortars (IRAMs), man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), IEDs, and EFPs (explosively formed projectiles/penetrators).” Just last week the U.S. Department of the Treasury targeted Iran for its support of human rights abuses in Syria and for facilitating “the movement of al Qa’ida operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports,” and for providing “money and weapons to al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI)…and [they] negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.” Furthermore, evidence points to a solidifying of the relationship between the Iranian regime and Al-Qaeda: Muhsin Al-Fadli, the highest-ranking and experienced Al-Qaeda operative outside the leadership core, stepped in as the leader of the network in Iran, and British intelligence is indicating that Iranian support of a 2009 deal with Al-Qaeda is reaching operational capacity. The report said,
“Against the background of intensive co-operation over recent months between Iran and al Qaeda – with a view to conducting a joint attack against Western targets overseas…Iran has significantly stepped up its investment, maintenance and improvement of operational and intelligence ties with the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan in recent months.”
This growing alliance between Iran and Al-Qaeda is not only disturbing, but is incredibly problematic for finding a solution to our problems with Iran. Coming to a peace agreement with Iran over its nuclear program means overlooking the Al-Qaeda presence, while advocating military action means dealing with not just the huge economic repercussions that would follow a strike, but also trying to crush Al-Qaeda in a larger, more hostile environment over a long period of time. Experience has clearly shown that Al-Qaeda can be extremely difficult to eradicate. Additionally, the connection shows that Iran is trying to gain as much influence in the region as possible. Iraq may destabilize completely from sectarian war thus giving Iran even more control in that country, and a Somalia filled with an unchecked Al-Shabaab/Al-Qaeda force would only increase Iran’s reach next door to the Saudi Peninsula. This is a major red flag to the West. Several immediate policies need to be taken in order to check Iran’s and Al-Qaeda’s ascent: First, Western powers need to intervene in Syria, which is a major ally of Iran. Changing out the Syrian regime could completely halt Iran’s growth in the region. Second, we need to drastically increase support of the transitional government in Somalia and Ethiopian/African Union forces in order to defeat Al-Shabaab. Finally, Western covert action needs to be increased within Iran. We definitely know that covert steps against the Iranian nuclear program have been taken, but we have heard nothing in relation to stopping the Al-Qaeda presence there. It is doubtful that steps aren’t being taken, but the strengthening ties between the organization and Iran show that this should be just as much a priority as stopping the nuclear program.